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Become the Next Serial: How to Create a Podcast and Turn a Profit
No doubt about it, 2014 was a banner year for podcasting. Podcasting migrated from the fringe to the mainstream, thanks in part to the popularity of NPR’s murder-mystery podcast, Serial.
“The future of radio is here, and it’s awesome,” The Verge’s David Pierce observed in a piece about the “podcasting renaissance.” Alex Blumberg, the journalist who left NPR to found the podcast company Gimlet Media, told TechCrunch, “we’re on the dawn of a second golden age of audio.”
For crazed podcast lovers like me, it has been extremely satisfying to finally have others understand why an mp3 file can be so addictive. I’ve been an avid listener for the last six or seven years — definitely (and proudly!) before it was part of the zeitgeist. I’ve even dipped my toe into podcast creation, researching how and when to monetize for my own project, and I love recommending my favorite podcasts.
But if you don’t have the benefit — as Serial did — of debuting your podcast on This American Life and lack the NPR pedigree, is it possible to make a few extra bucks, or even a serious living, from podcasting?
How Big is the Demand for Podcasts?
Despite the excitement of last year, podcast listenership remains small. Numbers aren’t yet available for 2014 — and it will be interesting to see if the hype actually adds up to more listeners — but the latest State of the News Media report found that in 2013, only 27 percent of Americans had “ever” listened to a podcast. That’s a far cry from terrestrial radio, which reaches 91 percent of Americans.
But the good news for podcast creators (and aspiring creators!) is that — despite listenership penetration — podcasting seems to have reached a sustainability tipping point.
“Some podcasters are happy covering their costs, others are thrilled to make a little extra scratch, while others want to make a living,” Paul Riismandel, a podcast industry aficionado, wrote on his blog Radio Survivor. “I want all of these scenarios to be possible. In 2014 this became so,” says Riismandel, who writes about the medium, works with podcast companies and is a podcast co-host.
So yes, you can make a living a podcasting. But what’s the best way to point your podcast toward profitability?
Here’s how some of the pioneers are making cash off podcasts:
Advertising and Sponsorships
As with anything online, if you have a large enough audience, ads can be lucrative. This Week in Tech, for example, reportedly generates $50,000 per episode!
For podcasters set on generating revenue this way, John Lee Dumas, the founder of EntrepreneurOnFire, is the person to follow.
His is a classic “rags to riches” story: Dumas went from being a completely unknown brand to generating more than $60,000 a month from sponsorships in less than two years. He’s transparent about all aspects of his path and publicly documents his monthly income, which provides a great resource for aspiring podcasters.
Dumas also put together a helpful ebook that includes his personal story and detailed knowledge of everything he has learned along the way, including monetization. In the book, he breaks down how he’s earned money from his podcast (hint: it’s not all through advertising) and also explains what kind of listener numbers you need to make money from standard advertising practices. The book also explains that a big part of his eye-popping income comes from sheer volume — he pumps out content daily.
One of the benefits of podcasting becoming more mainstream is that it’s getting more attention in advertising circles. Enter Midroll, which helps podcasters find advertisers. They even have a nifty tool that estimates how much your podcast can make from advertising. Originally part of the Earwolf podcast network, the company represents some of the most well-known podcasters, including Marc Maron.
Subscriptions and Paid Content
Established podcasters who’ve been at it for years can make money from their archives. In some cases, experienced podcasters are also in-demand enough that fans will pay for exclusive content.
For example, Keith and the Girl offers VIP packages from $14.99 per month. The packages include VIP-only content and access to archive shows dating back to 2005 .
The sex advice columnist Dan Savage offers a “Magnum” edition of each show, which includes all the content in the free version in addition to an extra 40-50 minutes with guests and no ads. A one-month subscription is $5.
Some podcasters don’t charge a dime for their online content. They focus on generating a large and engaged audience so that listeners will want to check out — and pay for — seeing them in person.
That’s a pillar of Adam Carolla’s strategy. A 2010 Fast Company article describes the comedian’s approach:
Carolla has been rotating among the four Improv clubs in Southern California, presenting live podcasts one night a week, usually doing two shows. Tickets are $25, and Carolla takes 80% of the door revenue. So in Hollywood, the night I was there, Carolla grossed approximately $8,800, not including merchandise sales after each show.
Events aren’t the exclusive domain of people as well known as Carolla (though it helps to have famous guests). Catie Lazarus, a writer in New York who is the host of the Employee of the Month podcast, uses live tapings to generate revenue. Show tickets cost around $20 and the audience gets an hour or so with Lazarus, her guest and lots of comedic banter. Previous guests have included Rachel Maddow, Mo Rocca and Gloria Steinem.
The biblically inspired phrase, “ask and you shall receive,” is apropos for this one. A number of podcasters have turned to the Internet to help fund or subsidize their shows — and they’ve done so with success.
No surprise here, podcasters who come from the traditional radio world and have an established audience — 99% Invisible for example — have managed to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. But crowdfunding has also worked for folks who don’t have an NPR pedigree. Writer Colin Marshall raised more than $8,000 to produce a series of interviews for his Notebook on Cities and Culture podcast.
Then there’s Patreon, a funding platform that allows fans to contribute monthly to creative projects like podcasting. One of the website’s featured podcasters (and likely one of the most successful) is Tom Merritt, who earns more than $13,000 per month for his tech podcast.
Many other podcasters on Patreon earn far less. Cliff Ravenscraft, known as the Podcast Answer Man, has been podcasting for years and has significant audiences for several shows. On Patreon, one show earns him $58 per episode. Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, who podcasts about writing and creative entrepreneurship, earns $101 per show.
While these earnings might not be enough to live on, $50-$100 per show is a nice supplement to any income. This is also a good reminder that crowdfunding campaigns of all shapes and sizes are a lot of hard work.
Grants and Donations
Taking a cue from public radio, podcasts with a social conscience sometimes opt to rely on grants. For shows with strong communities, listener donations are also an option.
Tiny Spark is one such example of the grant-funded model. The podcast, which investigates the “business of doing good,” was founded in 2011 by Amy Costello, an Africa correspondent who has reported for NPR, PBS television and the BBC World Service. In September, Tiny Spark received a $400,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Listener support has been a part of the revenue pie for years at the podcast network Maximum Fun. In a 2013 interview, Maximum Fun Founder and podcast host Jesse Thorn outlined why donations are part of his business model:
The whole operation is donor-supported, though we have other streams of revenue as well. There are a couple reasons that we did that. The first is that the advertising market for podcasts still isn’t mature. The second is that I generally prefer non-commercial media to commercial media, and while I’m running a for-profit business, I want to reflect those values. … I like the idea of being in a business where my primary goal is to make something the audience loves rather than simply making something that gathers the most audience. I don’t want any part of making Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
Thorn expounded on the donation model on his Tumblr, noting that Maximum Fun offers “something valuable to people, and they’re paying for it.” He added, “They happen to do so voluntarily, which I think is wonderful.”
What’s interesting here is that contributions to the podcast network aren’t donations in the traditional sense because Maximum Fun is an incorporated business (yes, you read that correctly). They note this fact on their donation page. So it can only be assumed that when people give, it’s for no other reason than they enjoy the shows — and the donor benefits, such as fun t-shirts and unique friendship bracelets, don’t hurt either.
Jaclyn Schiff is a Chicago-based writer, podcast fan and the host of Pangea, a podcast about global ideas.